Peer Review, Fall 2004
What's in a Name?
The Persistence of "General Education"
By Stephen H. Bowen, senior fellow, Association
of American Colleges and Universities
Essentially every contemporary American
college and university requires that undergraduate students
complete a common "general education" curriculum,
regardless of the student's major or area of specialization.
In the words of one regional accrediting body, this is "a
coherent general education requirement consistent with the
institution's mission and designed to ensure breadth
of knowledge and to promote intellectual inquiry" (North
Central Association 1997). Comprising about 25 to 50 percent
of the academic credits required for a baccalaureate degree,
this coursework and the learning it is intended to produce
help to distinguish graduates as baccalaureate-educated persons
as the institution defines that concept.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century,
curricula taught at American colleges and universities began
to diversify through addition of a requirement in each student's
program of study for a major area of concentration. This was
sometimes titled "special education." The title "general education"
came into wide use early in the twentieth century to identify
that part of the curriculum that was not the major (Kimball
1995). The meaning of this title became significantly more
specific as a result of the work of the Harvard Committee
on General Education. Published in 1945, General Education
for a Free Society set out specific goals in the education
of every student to be addressed in a shared, coherent, purposeful
general education curriculum. The committee proposed a combination
of required core and elective distribution courses, with instruction
in writing embedded in the curriculum. Today, most general
education programs at colleges and universities across the
nation contain these elements.
Conceptions of general education were
further developed and defined through the extensive reform
efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in greater
aspirations and substantially increased enthusiasm for the
potential and importance of general education. Colleges and
universities better articulated their commitment to breadth
with integration and purpose with coherence throughout the
common curriculum. Many institutions developed pedagogies,
content, and structures that were distinctive of their goals
Although the term "general education"
referred to a widely understood distinction when it first
came into use, many in the academy today believe this label
does not effectively communicate either the purposes and goals
of their current curriculum or their aspirations for this
part of the educational program. What are some of the alternative
titles, and what might each imply? Does one or more of the
alternatives better communicate our aspirations for this facet
of the undergraduate experience than does "general education"?
If so, why does this name persist to such an extent?
Rob Mauldin, director of general education
at Shawnee State University in Ohio, informally surveyed the
variety of titles given to general education curricula at
200 colleges and universities. He found that although 67 percent
use the descriptor "general," other titles are
also in wide use. The term "core" was used by
20 percent, "university" by 8 percent, and "liberal"
by 7 percent.*
We academics are careful about our words.
Each alternative has something different to say about the
purpose of this segment of the educational program, and different
audiences are likely to interpret the labels differently.
An important factor in the success of any curriculum is communicating
its purpose to students, so it matters which we choose. What
are the implications of these commonly used labels, and how
well do they communicate what we mean?
Although "general" is the
most widely used, it is also the least informative. Apart
from "not specific," and thus not focused in a
single area of study, the term is vague and may be assumed
by some to indicate a lack of intentionality. Others will
make the association with the common use of "general"
to connote introductory-level material--as in "general
biology"--and may conclude that the "general
education" curriculum is preliminary to specialization
in the major. The name "general education" has
a practical advantage; it is the term most widely used in
higher education, including by accrediting bodies, journals,
and government agencies. Also, as the most readily recognized
name, "general education" helps to accurately
identify the variety of curricula intended to play similar
roles at American colleges and universities.
Many will appreciate the fact that "core,"
the second most common descriptor, implies the centrality
of this part of the undergraduate experience in terms of structure,
function, and goals. But like "general," "core"
does not clearly indicate the content or goals of the curriculum.
In addition, the term is of limited use to the many institutions
where this curriculum consists of broad menus of elective
courses without actual core courses--although there may
be a set of core goals.
"University" has the advantage
of signifying that this curriculum belongs to the university
as a whole and is, to some extent, common to the degrees of
all students. This may be a subtlety to those less familiar
with curricular structures, however. If it is not a university
curriculum, they may wonder, then what is it?
"Liberal," as in "liberal
arts" or "liberal studies," has the greatest
potential for communicating what is intended to those familiar
with academe, and the greatest potential for miscommunicating
to those who are not. Those in academe are likely to recognize
that the majority of general education programs are grounded
in the liberal arts values of breadth and integration of knowledge
and in the development of fundamental intellectual skills.
But those unfamiliar with the liberal arts tradition may mistake
"liberal" as a political stance. Those who interpret
the liberal arts tradition to lay audiences often feel obliged
to clarify this point.
Thus, none of the commonly used words
meets the criteria we would expect for an effective name.
Although one or another may better reflect the intent of the
curriculum, they tell us little about the curriculum that
helps to distinguish its structure, function, or goals from
other elements of an institution's educational plan.
It may as well be named "Fred."
At a few colleges and universities, the
curriculum in question has been given a name that more precisely
signifies its purpose: "Critical Foundations in the
Arts & Sciences," "The Common Learning Agenda,"
"The Global Village Curriculum," or "The
International Core Program and Basic Competency Requirement."
These names have the advantage of drawing attention to distinctive
features of the institutions' educational programs.
Moreover, a few colleges and universities have taken the definitive
step of naming the curriculum after the institution, making
it a signature element of institutional identity: "The
Marshall Plan," "The Miami Plan," "The
Kalamazoo Plan," "The Tulsa Curriculum,"
or "The Ursuline Studies Program." These institutions
have made a special commitment to shared learning that is
If the names in common use are not particularly
informative and "general education" is the least
among them, then why does this name persist as that most commonly
used? Three possibilities come to mind. One is that, when
compared to other matters, this issue does not rise to a level
of importance that compels action. In the context of other
concerns, the name of the common curriculum and what it signifies
is not a pressing issue. A second possibility is that, even
though it is important to many that the program be well named,
there is inadequate consensus about what the name should be.
This may reflect some variety of opinion about the priorities
and goals that guide the program, and coming to consensus
does take time. A third possibility is that, despite the best
efforts of reformers and their ambitious curricular plans
as written, the reality is that, once implemented, the general
education curriculum remains mostly general. Of the three
possibilities, this one has the greatest consequences for
the quality of students' educations.
Whatever the reason, dissatisfaction
with both the generic title "general education"
and the equally tepid alternatives to it may help to stimulate
examination of what actually is being accomplished in your
program, thus providing a valuable reality check.
* These add up to 102 percent because
some curriculum titles include more than one of these words.
Harvard Committee on General Education.
1945. General education for a free society. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Kimball, Bruce A. 1995. Orators and
philosophers: A history of the idea of liberal education.
New York: The College Board.
North Central Association. 1997. Handbook
on accreditation. Chicago: North Central Association.